Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Drama of Sameness and Difference

I'm trying to find a satisfactory definition of ennui, something more descriptive than the "feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction" that Merriam-Webster offers up, and yet something that doesn't drag you straight down into a black hole populated with grotesquerie like Sylvia Plath's sonnet, "Ennui."

Something about a world drained of color should be in a proper definition, don't you think?

Even Walter Sickert's stark brown painting is a bit too colorful for this feeling, although I do appreciate the visual rhetoric of the half-full glass on the table (or is it half empty?). By the way, it is suspected that the artist, Sickert, might have been Jack the Ripper.
How about Asker Askerov's "Ennui"-- what the heck is going on here? A table topped with plenty of variety and goodness ignored by the listless woman at the table.
Here is a 16th century illustration of the health problem of ennui. A sad, bored person sits surrounded by books full of knowledge, cupboards full of curiosities and windows full of views.
I'm thinking that world-weary seems like a more adequate definition.

The problem is not with the world, of course. The world continues to spin thrillingly and to be populated with its usual glorious circus. It continues its usual pageant of sunsets, rainbows and synchronicity.

And yet, all of a sudden, the endless underlying patterns that other times offer comfort and orientation, suddenly just look like ... sameness. Same old sameness.

We need a little of both, I think. Some sameness to keep us oriented and comfortable, some difference to keep us interested.

There is probably a mathematical formula, a necessary balance that must be struck before we can feel satisfaction. I guess it's related to the usual tensions, such as that between order and chaos, rest and motion. But do we really need equal parts of each --difference and sameness --in order to be happy?

The problem, as I noted earlier, is not with the world, which continues to pour forth surprises as it always has. We're talking about a world that includes the Permian extinction event, mutating viruses and the platypus. It's hard to see how we could ever be bored.
Ennui is a problem with the way you're looking. It's like 3D glasses that makes some things apparent and others invisible.
We have this little thing in our brain called the reticular activating system, which is like a filter for what we notice and what we don't. It plays a role in language acquisition, which is how I learned about it. But I can't help wondering if it also plays a role in ennui.
Here's what I think:

In the wintertime, the world really does slow down, the colors really do drain right out, and our surroundings really are often limited by the weather. In wintertime, the world ceases its flamboyant displays; its beauty becomes understated -- all this just as the inconveniences of foul weather and illness set in.

If we want to keep ennui at bay in the wintertime, our reticular activating systems need to be in fine form and working overtime to see the difference-among-sameness that is the lifeblood of our satisfaction.

But how?

The scent of peppermint is said to stimulate this part of the brain. Some vitamin supplements claim to as well, for example, thiamine (found in wheat germ), and a synthetic form of B1 called sulbutiamine.

I don't know. It's worth a try. We have another two months of winter ahead of us.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Unreal Life

Image courtesy of
In the same way the television is objectionable, the internet is also.

It takes a lot of effort to avoid the garbage, the incessant flow of mind pollution that the internet (just like the TV) brings into one's life.

This pollution bombards you against your will, while you're trying to engage in wholesome, meaningful activities. Examples of pollution: ads, popups, objectionable search results, and commercials, particularly the kind that remind us of the lowest human attribute -- lack of self-control.

Not only that, but spending time with the imaginary world of the internet (or the TV) means you're not spending time with actual flesh-and-blood people.

Like it or not, we are social creatures who need real human contact in order to survive. Remember Harlow's rhesus monkey experiment, where the baby monkeys failed to thrive without a loving touch? Or the institutionalized Romanian orphans of the 1990s or feral children throughout history?

Clearly, our development and progression depends on real, physical contact with real people.

Furthermore, doing things online (or watching TV) means you're not creating anything. Hell, the internet is even worse than TV, because with TV at least your hands are free for crocheting or something.

In fact, being online too much creates a kind of half-life; you seem to be living but not really. Really, you are sitting in front of an electronic box.

All your beautiful consciousness is directed into it; all the miraculous synapses of your brain are working on this imaginary scenario. It's a black hole for consciousness.
Photo courtesy of Vic Nanda,
I recognize this half-life notion from a long, long time ago when, for the briefest period, I allowed television into the house and started watching-- yes, I'll admit it-- soap operas.

For that, blessedly short, period of time, it seemed as if my life consisted mostly of doing laundry, folding it while watching soaps, and preparing and cleaning up after meals.

No writing, no studying, no artwork, no creating, no photography, no traveling, no parties, no lunches with friends.

Back then, I called my sister in Texas and told her I was feeling depressed. She asked me to describe my day. When I got to the part about soaps, she stopped me. "Hold on, we've identified your problem," she said.

And she was right. I turned off the TV and never looked back.

But here we are again, with a different little box of commercial messages and commercially motivated hooks for the human spirit.

I feel depressed. Should I call my sister and describe my day?
P.S. Here's an article about a couple whose four year love affair has been carried out entirely on Second Life.

P.P.S. An unsatisfactory little article about a study looking at a link between Facebook and depression. More studies like this are likely to arise.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

At the Crossroads

With hands that trembled a bit, I hit "print" and sent my thesis, which my advisers have assured me is not my magnum opus, to the printer. Eighty-five pages shot out of the machine in rapid succession.

Again, my hands trembled a little as I gathered them up, stacked them neatly together, felt the satisfying heft of them and tucked them safely away in a manila folder.

I had promised myself I'd finish this draft, this penultimate draft, by 2010. I doubted myself; I thought I would fail as I've failed so many things lately.

But with only this single thing on my agenda, I managed to do it.

All semester, I have been doing too many things. Any single one of these things I could have done with admirable flair, but all of them at once and frankly, I was just lucky not to fail spectacularly.

But just after 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, I was done. A whole night stretched ahead to celebrate, but all I wanted to do was rest my mind.

I am so bloody tired.
Who Will Read It?

It's hard to work on a thing that no one will ever read. It's hard to maintain your commitment with that realization by your side.

Some friends have asked me what it's about; one good friend, accustomed to academia, has offered to read it and give me feedback.

Many people don't even know what it is, what the big deal is. I confess I never really understood until now.

Who will read this thing I have created? My advising committee, and that's it.

It will be bound in green, labeled, then set to join the others on the shelf in the English Department office. There dust will collect on its surfaces, spiders nest in its crevices, and harried grad students of the future might choose it to look at vaguely for clues about what is expected of them.
The Unfolding Process

The product isn't that important, as it turns out -- important as defined by me and my views of what my own education has been about. Instead, it is the process that mattered.

Indeed, in some ways, it is a magnum opus, because writing it caused me to distill my thoughts and gather the resources I need to back up my own teaching philosophies with good, solid evidence.

It's not my best writing. It doesn't carry the reader along as I want my writing to do. This is the third piece of writing I've done that has had this effect, the effect of making me take a good look at something I've done, put it into perspective and make sense out of it.

One was the cover letter in my senior portfolio. The second was the entrance essay I wrote to get into graduate school. And now, my thesis. Pains in the ass, all, but powerful, powerful assignments, effective tasks that I strongly believe in.


It's hard to articulate what goes on in academia, particularly in grad school. How it opens you like a flower that never stops blooming, makes you shed your old, ill-fitting skin like a snake, over and over. Wakes up your mind like a night city coming to life.

I've heard people say we jump through hoops so we can get a piece of paper, the diploma. It is enough to make you cry to think that someone could go through the process of their own education and somehow manage to avoid being educated.

It is like saying the whole wild ride and witch's brew of marriage is about a gold ring. It's like saying life is about death. Ridiculous.

What Now?

So, here I am at the crossroads, wondering what will happen next.

I'm tired of school. I hope I never have to climb the stairs to Founders Hall again. Hope I never have to curse HSU as I search for parking or snatch a telltale green parking ticket off my windshield.

And yet. And yet.

On the Wane

Reach a hand to the crescent moon
Grab hold of the hollow
If she sits in the palm of the left
That moon will be fuller tomorrow

If she sits in the palm of the right
That moon is on the wane
And the love of the one who shares your bed
Will be doing just the same

Won't you come with me, she said
There's plenty of room in my iron bed
You're looking cold and tired
And more than a little human

I know I'm not part of the life you had planned
But I think once your body feels my hand
Your mind will change
And your heart will lose its pain
Do I reach for you when I know you're on the wane?
Do I sense you when I know you're not around?

Do I search for you when I know you can't be found?

Do I dare to speak your name?
Raise your eye to the moonless sky
Try to wish upon a rising star
Search all you want for her blessings
But you won't find her sparkling there

Now cast your eyes to a part of the sky
Where nothing but darkness unfolds
And watch as all around you she reveals
The brilliance of secrets untold

("Crescent Moon," Cowboy Junkies)